The British culture of drinking to get drunk

Distinct from alcohol dependency, or going on non-stop drinking benders lasting several days, binge drinking is a socially accepted part of British culture. To quote the immortal satire of Christopher Morris in his Brass Eye incarnation, “Alcohol’s not a drug, it’s a drink!”

However, our ‘drinking to get drunk’culture is forcing its way up the political and scientific agenda. It certainly came as something of a shock to read how little it takes to qualify as a binge drinker: just 2.6 pints of premium lager in two hours for men, even less for women.

Most students would struggle to make 2.6 pints last two hours on a night out. Moreover, the primary effects of a binge are longlasting. It takes approximately one hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol. Consequently, if you start drinking at 8pm and have, say, 16 units (easily done in six pints of lager), by 9.15 in the morning you’d still be well over the drink-drive limit, and certainly shouldn’t be driving to campus, never mind attempting to concentrate on a lecture.

For students, conspicuous consumption of alcohol has always been a part of the lifestyle, and has been largely regarded as a rights of passage. As it turns out, drunken students were merely the vanguard of a wider trend toward a nation of binge drinkers, the cost of booze actually having fallen considerably in real terms since our parents’day. Nevertheless, it is most common in the 16 to 24 year old demographic, with about one third of us bingeing at least once a week according to the charity Alcohol Concern.

Potential health perks (e.g. reduced risk of coronary heart disease) from moderate alcohol consumption have been widely reported. Yet studies show that such advantages do not apply when concentrating consumption in one or two heavy sessions each week. Indeed, by increasing blood clots, affecting blood pressure and blood lipids, heart disease is in fact a potential consequence of bingeing. Even if it were possible to reduce the chances of a heart attack later in life by downing ten bottles of K2 Ice in Ziggy’s every Wednesday, the benefit would be far outweighed by the behavioural risks we take on simply by being intoxicated.

The relationship between binge drinking and admissions to accident and emergency departments is well established. To illustrate; one in four acute male admissions to UK hospitals are now alcohol related. We are more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of violent crime when drunk and incidence of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections is higher. Detrimental health effects such as liver disease and alcohol’s contribution to the tidal wave of obesity washing over the UK are also common. It would be interesting to track the average body fat of undergraduates during their time here, correlated with their drinking habits. From personal experience, it’s pretty clear that third years pack a bit more ‘York pork’.

Faced with a spiralling health and crime bill to pick up, it is not surprising that government and local authorities have begun to act to clamp down on bars and night clubs that encourage bingeing. Ikon’sThursday unlimited drinks for £10 offer was quietly shelved and replaced with a limited voucher system after a drunk grabbed the wheel of a bus on its way back to town, crashing it into a wall and causing the death of the driver.

The esoteric relationship between Homo Sapiens and the hard stuff is likely at least as old as our species itself. It has been proposed, for example, that early hominids were heavily dependent on fruit in their diet. Ripe fruit naturally contains alcohol, as wild yeast slowly ferments the sugars it contains. Perhaps an attraction to alcohol was thus hard-wired into human brains by natural selection, an association similar to our cravings for fatty, high-energy junk foods.

We are not alone in our tendency to over-indulge; the sight of drunken monkeys falling out of trees must be one of the natural world’s funniest spectacles. More sinisterly though, reports came out from Western Uganda early this year of groups of booze-crazed chimpanzees raiding illegal forest brewing operations, with wildlife park officials claiming the chimps get drunk and aggressive, and have killed local children after drinking.

As humans we are not mere slaves to our evolutionary history though, we have consciousness and free choice, yet so many of us choose to endanger ourselves and disable these unique faculties with ethanol. Through excessively over indulging we risk squandering some of our most basic biological faculties.

The effects of drink on our brains and bodies are familiar to all who enjoy a tipple. Relaxation, confidence and fewer inhibitions (including, for some, a curious love for karaoke) are all possible happy consequences of drinking, and more often than not no harm is done. Chances are, we’ll grow out of binge drinking and eventually settle down to a brandy in front of the fire before bed at 10 o’clock.

However, in the meantime, we ought to be careful that our penchant for the occasional overindulgence during the university years doesn’t become too great a habit, susceptible to that other human predilection – addiction.

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